Writers on rejection: Bernardine Evaristo

Photo by Marlon James.

‘As someone who comes from a black and working class background, who was not raised with a sense of entitlement, I’ve since developed a very strong sense of it. It is my duty and my right to believe in myself because this keeps me on track. I’m one of the few black British writers continuing to publish and I’m never giving up.’

In my latest interview for Writers on Rejection, I talk to award-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo. Bernardine is the author of seven books and other published and produced works of fiction, poetry, verse fiction, short fiction, essays, literary criticism, radio and theatre drama. She has also edited anthologies and special issues of magazines and is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London. She has won numerous awards including the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004. Her latest novel, Mr Loverman, is currently in development with the BBC and the Bush Theatre, London. She is also passionate about opening up opportunities for artists and writers of colour and has initiated a number of schemes such as founding The Complete Works mentoring scheme and the Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

AA: What were your first experiences of rejection and how did you react to them?

BE: I remember not getting into the grammar school of my choice as an 11-year-old, and I was very upset. However, I did get in another grammar school, which I enjoyed, so it all worked out in the end. As a young writer, my first poetry manuscript was rejected by ten of the ten poetry publishers I sent it to in the early 1990s. On reflection, the manuscript was a mess – in every sense (typos/ordering/badly edited). I then tidied it up, resent it and was accepted by Peepal Tree Press, the only publisher specialising in poetry by black and Asian writers. At that time, most of the UK publishers were not publishing our poetry, and some, like Faber, now over 80 years old, have only published two poets of colour. In a sense it was inevitable that I would be rejected.

AA: Have you had any recent experiences with rejection? Has the way you deal with it changed over time?

BE: I don’t have any recent experiences of rejection, in the sense that I’ve applied for something and not received it. Of course as writers, most of us are always being rejected, in a sense, if major awards are not forthcoming.

AA: Has rejection ever made you doubt yourself as a writer?

BE: I think in the early days it was an emotional set-back, but it’s never made me want to give up. I’m a fighter and I have a strong sense of self, which is essential to survival as a writer. We need set-backs to develop our inner strength and resilience, which we all need eventually, even when things happen very easily for some of us, initially. I’m also very pragmatic and take action based on what I think needs to be done. I never give up and I believe that there is always a way through any challenges. I don’t succumb to self-pity or self-doubt, which is the death of creativity. I don’t ask myself, ‘Why me?’ but rather, ‘Why not me?’ When I do receive the things I’ve been seeking, I think, ‘About time – what took you so long?’ As someone who comes from a black and working class background, who was not raised with a sense of entitlement, I’ve since developed a very strong sense of it. It is my duty and my right to believe in myself because this keeps me on track. I’m one of the few black British writers continuing to publish and I’m never giving up.

AA: Have you ever felt glad that a particular piece of work was rejected?

BE: My editors at Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Random House are brilliantly rigorous in demanding the best from me. I have been challenged to go away and rewrite, sometimes producing four drafts of a novel and, in one instance, cutting 40,000 words from a novel. I’m incredibly grateful for the editorial attention I’ve received, always with a view to making my work the best that it can be. So the answer is Yes!

AA: Do you think rejection helped you to improve as a writer?

BE: Writers need to make a decision about their work based on the feedback they receive from readers, publishing houses or agents. If you’re not writing for yourself and your supportive mates, then you might want to make a judicious decision based on the feedback you receive. Commensurately, people reject manuscripts based on multiple factors such as personal taste and prejudice and the perceived demands (and limits) of the marketplace and other economic imperatives. There are so many cases of books being rejected and then going on to receive huge success and acclaim. Two Booker winners spring to mind: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout received 18 rejections and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road received about 100.

AA: You are a professor of creative writing at Brunel University London. Is rejection discussed much with students there? How is it approached?

BE: I tell them to expect it and to not be phased by it. When they are ready, they need to send their work out into the world and to expect rejection. If they’re good enough, or lucky enough, or resourceful enough, an acceptance will one day bounce into their inbox. If they don’t send their work out, nothing will happen. I drum this into my students, but naturally, hearing it is one thing, experiencing it is another. It’s tough out there for writers so writers have to be tough to survive it. Lesson no. 1.

AA: You have done lots of work in trying to open up opportunities for writers of colour. This has included initiating an Arts Council-funded report a few years ago into why less than 1% of published poetry was by black and Asian poets, founding the Complete Works poetry mentoring scheme in 2008 and also founding the Theatre of Black Women, among other initiatives. Do you think writers of colour tend to experience more rejection, more barriers than white writers?

BE: Absolutely. The Bookseller announced last November that out of the thousands of books published in the UK every year, less than 100 are by writers of colour. Houston, we have a major problem! There are many factors contributing to this. Readers can check it out here and also check out a project I initiated ten years ago that is now changing the face of British poetry.

AA: Are you hopeful things might be changing for the better for writers of colour? Can more be done?

BE: There are several other non-poetry initiatives afoot. We’ll see if they make a long-lasting difference.

AA: You have been an editor on a number of occasions, for special issues of magazines, for instance, and anthologies. Has being an editor – presumably having to reject work yourself – changed your attitude to rejection?

BE: Not at all. When I’m editing publications, I focus on the fact that I can express my vision of the kind of literature I’d like to see celebrated and published. I can level the playing field, briefly.

AA: What would you say to those writers experiencing rejection now?

BE: Don’t be crushed by other people’s gatekeeping. That said, take a good look at your work and make sure it is publishable and is going to stand out. If you’re a novelist, send your manuscript to The Literary Consultancy for professional evaluation. It will cost but it’s worth it. They are the best at this. Also, be practical, go away and write another work if you’re not getting anywhere with the work in hand, and by that I mean that you’ve tried EVERY relevant agent, publisher (or producer) for your manuscript. Alternatively, try Unbound Books or put your work out yourself. Then start again on a new work. Self-publishing is not as easily dismissed by the industry that it once was, especially for genre fiction that sells in the thousands online, but if you want the publishing sector’s stamp of approval and resources, then don’t give up on them.